Islamophobia in America: Where Do We Go from Here?

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Islamophobia in America: Where Do We Go from Here?

“It is a matter of principle and not the personalities involved. They may be doing it for all the wrong reasons, but we are being attacked simply and only for ‘not knowing our place’, not being sufficiently sorry for a crime we didn’t commit. Its like we need to assume some collective guilt for 9/11 and act accordingly.”

These words of an American citizen, who also happens to be a successful Muslim professional, aptly summarizes the frustrations of many Muslims and the concerns of many Americans of all faiths and no faith.

It is now time to move on. What have we learned and where do we go from here?

·      Muslims, like people of all faiths, have a constitutional right, the same religious freedoms, and therefore to build a center.

·      Islamophobia like anti-Semitism, hostility towards or discrimination against a person because of their faith or racial group, runs deep in our society.

·      Park 51 has unleashed and exposed the breadth and depth, the tip of the iceberg, of a growing social cancer long overlooked or denied. It has been embodied not only in the ranting of anti-Muslim bloggers and so-called Christian ministers who have vented their spleens but also exploited by conservative Republican politicians and political commentators in the media.

·      The failure to distinguish between the actions of religious extremists and terrorists and the vast majority of Muslims and their faith has reinforced a belief in the collective guilt of American Muslims and their faith.

Emerging out this hard fought public debate are the fundamental components for moving forward. Many Americans, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders, politicians and pundits, and the general public have provided a base from which to proceed. While all agree that Muslims have the same constitutional rights and freedoms as all others citizens and have a right to build an Islamic Center at Park 51, many disagree for diverse reasons disagree profoundly on the wisdom of doing so. Indeed, many have been hard pressed to not only support a constitutional right but also to avoid questioning the wisdom of its location, lest as in the case of President Obama, it be seen as somehow undercut this right.

This is a time for:

·      A coordinated effort led by those behind Park 51 and their supporters to reach out to all stakeholders.

·      Recognition of the social cancer of Islamophobia as unacceptable as anti-Semitism, a threat to the very fabric of our democratic pluralistic way of life, one that tests the mettle of our democratic principles and values.

·      Leaders of all faith communities and their congregations to begin a national and local conversation on Islam in interreligious relations.

·      Media to feature programs that deal with the scope and dangers of Islamophobia (with its religious discrimination, intolerance and hate) as they do with anti-Semitism and the challenges of religious pluralism instead of featuring the rants, demonstrations, and provocative acts of racists.

·      Politicians, whom polls show have lost the respect of the American people, to both demonstrate their integrity and denounce those of their party who are willing to trade hate speech for votes.

·      All citizens whatever our political and religious differences to reclaim a vision of America in which all citizens regardless of their religion or lack of it are respected and equal before the law.

All Americans to walk a fine line between distinguishing the faith of mainstream Muslims from the claims of a minority of extremists who justify their acts of violence and terrorism in the name of Islam. Blurring this distinction plays into the hands of preachers of hate (Muslim and non-Muslim) whose rhetoric incites and demonizes, alienates and marginalizes and leads to the adoption of domestic policies that undermine the civil liberties of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

The history of our great country has been plagued from colonial days by religious and racial discrimination and exploitation: slavery and centuries of racial discrimination, the demonization and marginalization of Native Americans, the denial of the right to build synagogues in New York and anti-Semitism in America, discrimination against ethnic Catholic immigrants, and the collective punishment of Japanese Americans during WW II. We have weathered these storms as a nation, though many lives were shattered and problems remain. The madness of Park 51 reminds us to be mindful and vigilant for: “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.”

John L. Esposito is professor of Religion and International Affairs and director of Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal center for Muslim-Christian understanding at Georgetown University at Georgetown University. He is also on the board of advisors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.  His most recent book is “The Future of Islam


This article also appeared on huffingtonpost.com on August 22, 2010 at huffingtonpost.com

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